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Charlie Sifford, the first black man to play on the PGA Tour, passed away Tuesday. He was 92.
A pioneer in golf, Sifford earned a place among golf's elite players after he challenged the PGA's Caucasian-only clause, leading to its desegregation in 1961. He won twice in his PGA Tour career, including the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and 1969 Los Angeles Open. He won two senior titles, including the 1975 Senior PGA Championship, five years before the formation of what is now the Champions Tour.
Sifford had recently suffered a stroke and was battling a bacterial infection in a Cleveland hospital.
Sifford was born June 22, 1922 in Charlotte, N.C., and was introduced to golf while working as a caddie. After turning pro, he won five consecutive national titles in the all-black United Golfers Association. Sifford wanted to take on the best players competing on the PGA.
Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier, was an inspiration for Sifford. Sifford met Robinson around the time Robinson broke into the major leagues in 1947. Robinson challenged Sifford to forge a similar path in golf.
“He asked me if I was a quitter,” Sifford wrote in his 1992 autobiography “Just Let Me Play." “I told him no. He said, ‘If you’re not a quitter, you’re probably going to experience some things that will make you want to quit.’”
Sifford, like Robinson, was the object of death threats, harassment and was subjected to racist heckling at tournaments. Many clubs told him he was not welcome at their tournaments. Even at clubs where Sifford could compete, he was sometimes denied the right to eat in their clubhouse dining rooms. Many hotels declined Sifford a room.
Thanks to an invitation he got from former heavyweight champion and avid golfer Joe Louis, Sifford first tried to qualify for a PGA event at the 1952 Phoenix Open. Five years later, Sifford won the Long Beach Open, an unofficial event co-sponsored by the PGA.
Sifford knew and embraced the pressure on him not only to perform well but face scrtuiny for every thing he did.
“If I hadn’t acted like a professional when they sent me out, if I did something crazy, there would never be any blacks playing,” Sifford said. “I toughed it out. I’m proud of it. All those people were against me, and I’m looking down on them now.”
Tiger Woods, who refers to Sifford as "the grandpa I never had," credits Sifford's trailblazing career for paving the way for his introduction to golf and his historic career.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie, and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf," Woods told the Associated Press last year. "My pop (Earl) likely wouldn't have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn't have either."
The Northern Trust Open, the modern name of the L.A. Open, created an exemption in 2009 named after Sifford designed to offer an opportunity to compete in the event for a player who represents furthering golf's diversity and who would otherwise not qualify for the tournament. The exemption has since been renamed the Northern Trust Open Exemption.
In 2001, Sifford became the first black golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Last November, he became just the third golfer, behind Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.